"Grey brick upon grey brick…
O greyness run to flower,
Grey stone, grey water,
And brick upon grey brick."
From Dublin, by Louis MacNeice
Back when the Dáil was in meltdown and a snap-election briefly formed over the Christmas period like a dark civil-war-era cloud, the Rathgar offices of the artist-collective SUBSET were hit with a series of letters from Dublin City Council ordering them to remove their artwork from certain walls around town.
At the centre of the dispute is the way in which Dublin City Council approaches planning for large-format artwork in public spaces. SUBSET are an arts conglomerate best known for their striking murals that have appeared all over Dublin in the last year.
Touted online as valuable additions to the social fabric wherever they pop-up; these pieces reinvigorate often overlooked or neglected city spaces with vibrantly colourful panoramas or wry cultural commentary. However, art on this scale requires the Council’s permission for it to be street legal.
The permission available to the artists at present is fixed and rigid whereas they require a more fluid process allowing them to apply for spaces on an ongoing basis and vary their artwork in response to changing events.
As it stands, the collective must apply separately for each mural. The amount of time, bureaucracy and expense required to do this detracts from the spontaneity and impact of their art, so they don’t apply.
What they are looking for isn’t radical. The system governing public artworks in Dublin just needs to be brought in-line with other councils around Ireland, particularly the cities of Waterford and Limerick, which use modern licensing agreements resulting in a more time-efficient and cost-effective process.
The notices Dublin City Council (DCC) served on SUBSET prompted the collective to respond in the only way they knew how: with provocative protest art. Thus kick-starting the sort of campaign for which they’ve made a name for themselves in the worlds of creative marketing and street-art over the last year.
With their Gracie artwork on the gable-wall of Doran’s Barbers, a protected structure in Rathmines, they began removing the red-hued piece but not before highlighting what was happening and how it affected their operations.
Leaving half the painting up, the collective posted the letter they received from Dublin City Council as well as a cultural vision statement for the city, which they pulled directly from the Council’s website. This illustrated the gap between the DDC’s stated policies and how they acted in practice.
This goading response built hype for what was to come.
Next SUBSET were in Haymarket in Dublin 7 touching up their iconic Stormzy art piece. In full Banksy-mode now, they added a council worker mid-painting over Stormzy. He was busy turning the wall back to its original, non-descript grey. His paint-roller stopped just shy of the Grime artist’s praying hands. The wall was left that way for weeks before they removed it fully.
"The Council strikes again…" read their social media.
People caught up with what was happening. Twitter and Instagram filled up with testimonials detailing the positive effects Stormzy had had on Smithfield since it popped up overnight to coincide with the musician’s Olympia show last year. The owner of the building and employees said that around a dozen people came by every day to take selfies with the artwork. The mural was attracting tourists and boosting business, and in only nine months it felt like an intrinsic part of the square.
Across the city in Andrew’s Lane, the final touches were being made to the third strand of their campaign: a new wall painting that depicted Donald Trump spouting bile at one of his election rallies. His peaked cap read, "Make Dublin Grey Again".
With three coordinated swipes, SUBSET had made their point in typical style.
As far as Dublin City Council is concerned, this is a black and white issue. While permission and payment for the rental of the spaces was agreed with the proprietors of the businesses, SUBSET failed to submit planning applications. Therefore the art is illegal.
The only grey in the situation is the paint used to paint over the murals.
Ironically, after their antics, it was members of SUBSET who found themselves on top of the cherry picker going over Stormzy with paint-rollers. Having to erase your most recognisable work – grey stroke by grey stroke - was a surreal experience.
We spoke with SUBSET in order to get a sense of where the collective are at after a brilliant yet turbulent breakthrough year.
"Any modern thinking person, even a lot of traditional thinking people, would agree that having Stormzy there, or having artwork in general, is better than say a grey wall or a tagged wall or just a plain brick wall… It comes down to a serious lack of consistency both within and between the departments of Dublin City Council," said a spokesperson, talking anonymously on behalf of the collective.
"Take Doran Barber Shop in Rathmines, technically it is a protected structure and therefore even more stringent regulations apply. But, before it was transformed with artwork, the gable wall was repeatedly vandalised and as a result became a target for dumping. This had a seriously negative impact on the 'protected structure' itself but also the surrounding visual environment.
"Did the DCC do anything about this? No. But we clean it up, restore and, in our opinion, improve it with artwork and we are issued with a warning notice based upon the fact it is not in keeping with the aesthetic of the area.
"Sorry lads! But you’ve got a brand spanking new development right across the road with bright neon signs, you’ve got a Ladbrokes and an Asian restaurant adjacent to it… It is a multi-cultural environment."
The collective found one element of the Council episode infuriating, and frankly baffling. They discovered that the final call on what art stays up around the city and what is lost to the public is in the hands of individuals within the planning department.
Why are these individuals in control of freedom of expression in the city? Who are these people and what do they know about art?
Why did SUBSET announce themselves with that giant still of Stormzy and his South London crew from that famous Grime YouTube?
"The public love large-scale photo-realism. Why Grime? We believe the movement is closely aligned with our own movement.
"Take the record labels, which essentially are the same as marketing agencies, when Grime first started the artists were told by the labels that this has no longevity. You need to Americanise yourselves. You need to be more hip-hop orientated. And if you want to make it work, you need us to make it work for you.
"Usually when an entity like an agency or label don’t understand the culture they are trying to capitalise on, they just put it in the box they think it will sell best in. Our culture doesn't fit in a box because it is continuously evolving."
The labels were wrong about Grime; it is a burgeoning part of youth-culture today. This was recognised recently when it was given its own genre category on Spotify.
"Our vision aligns with Grime because basically it boiled down to doing things your own way because you firmly believe in the culture you are pushing, as opposed to someone just trying to cash in on a trend."
Whether it is their casual black-on-black apparel or their unique approach to business and making art, SUBSET do things their way, but it wasn’t always so.
The first iteration of the collective was called Rabbit Hole Promotions. They saw an opportunity in the empty hoardings prevalent during the recession and started producing art-based advertising campaigns for agencies and brands. Because they weren’t fully formed in their thinking, they often ceded creative control and found that their work ended up diluted.
Even if they didn’t know it at the time, they were busy learning what they didn’t want to be.
"Creativity or art is supposed to be unique, it was our development of a strategic approach that took time… Even just the way we speak to people now, what we will and won’t do, what we intend on doing and how it is we’ll do it, that’s what separates us."
After taking time out, they re-grouped, recruited and re-launched as SUBSET.
SUBSET are aware that they shouldn’t have free reign in the city. What they want is for their spaces to be recognised as platforms on which homegrown artists can and have expressed themselves freely.
"The fact that the DCC approach large-format artwork, or the production of it, in this way prevents so many aspects of cultural expression … We are in the process of amassing a shit load of spaces which we are going to use for ourselves, but also to invite external artists to use them.
"We’re already doing this but we want to up the ante."
Their aim over the next few years is to carve out a sustainable infrastructure that supports the creation of culture and allows artists to flourish rather than emigrate.
"We are trying to use SUBSET as a beacon to attract creatives to this country and enable creatives that are this way inclined to stay as opposed to leaving by providing a platform.
"People have questioned why we let other artists paint our spaces, ‘Surely that’s competition?’ It isn’t. There are enough spaces in Ireland to serve our community for a lifetime, ten times over. It is, and always will be, about art first and foremost…
"Our approach is very different. We are a new species, and therefore we don’t fit in the cage that has been built to house other animals."
The conflict with the Council can be seen as a metaphor for how SUBSET find themselves moving two steps forward only to be jolted back. As a result of what happened, they lost the use of two of their prime spaces. This impacted on a number of projects with big clients, which of course hit cash flow.
While SUBSET are in demand after the year they’ve had, and creatively peaking, from a business perspective things remain somewhat precarious. There is a team of five creatives and three strategists. Ideally that should be a half and half split.
In society, art will always get made, what changes is how it is paid for and funded. In this respect, the collective are busy road-testing a new model.
"It is art through the guise of business… The only reason we are a company is because it’s the easiest way to operate and progress our vision. We don’t give a fuck about a limited company, shares or any of that corporate shit, but it just makes it far easier from an administrative perspective to have it setup that way…
"Some people seem to think that because we’re artists we should be poor. Or because we are a business we shouldn’t be considered artists. We’re a group of artists with an interest in business and a group of businessmen and women with an interest in art.
"We don’t see a contradiction or a problem. I suppose that is the scary prospect for those who take advantage of creatives."
Through a choice mixture of corporate, community and passion projects, SUBSET have generated the profile and revenue needed for the collective to survive. For it to thrive, they will need to build on their impressive first year and for the Council and advertising agencies to recognise the mutually beneficial opportunities collaboration would present to the city, its public and clients.
Their vision is bold and ambitious:
"If you want it in real simple terms, it is to turn the city into an open art gallery."
Now that they are established, the artists are after a greater slice of the corporate cake in order to make their art sustainable through more cut-throat times.
One aim of the collective is to rail against what they perceive as a vapid marketing world.
"We want to turn the marketing industry on its head. Because at the moment advertising is invasive, intrusive, exploitative, regurgitative, and the whole market is saturated with the same shit that doesn’t work. Treat people stupid. Sell to them easy. Modern day propaganda… The marketing industry is one of the largest communication platforms in the world and it is largely used negatively. We want to refine it for the benefit of all those whom come in contact with it."
They want to pitch local art with a global reach as an antidote to the current malaise in advertising.
"We want to completely flip that. Treat people with the intellectual capability that they deserve. If you use this as a mandate and create interesting, engaging and interactive content then those who positively interact with it become brand ambassadors. They speak about the brand that sponsored the artwork in a positive light and word of mouth is the strongest form of marketing."
The creative trumps everything. By pulling people in, rather than trying to coerce or bombard them with messaging, they feel a part of the story and can play a role by sharing the art.
"The reason we produced the Stormzy piece was to show, from the get go, that we don’t need a big agency to assist us in creating something with global reach.
"We did this ourselves with f**k all money and we got the same amount of traction and exposure that, in marketing terms, would require a budget of a million quid plus…if you wanted that much conversation, that many unique impressions and that much interaction and engagement."
Their strategy fell into place with jigsaw precision.
The other breakthrough for the collective came with the pop-culture and entertainment story of 2017, Conor McGregor. They admire the brash-braggadocio of the Crumlin fighter, which has fuelled his meteoric rise. He, like Trump, is one of these omnipresent personalities who seem to encapsulate this moment: they are click machines abhorred by the old liberal gatekeepers.
Through a meeting with his coach and mentor, John Kavanagh, they got the opportunity to do a mural in the SBG gym on the Long Mile Road. They painted a foreshadowing of McGregor knocking Floyd Mayweather out to help the mixed-martial-artist turned boxer visualize his impossible success.
The mural ended up travelling as far as late-night television in the United States, while the reality of the ring interfered in its becoming a Homeric-foreshadowing.
"We’ve been asked what the most beneficial thing was that came from doing the Stormzy and Conor McGregor stuff, and it’s that it has given us a platform to voice Irish culture… In creating our own lane we are also bringing as many people from a similar background along for the ride."
With 2018 up and running, it will be fascinating to track this new cultural force as they develop, especially the compromises SUBSET make in order to thrive. One thing is clear, Dublin has had enough grey, so expect a colourful storm.